Head of competition watchdog welcomes law to bring down price of school uniform

The chair of the competition watchdog has welcomed a new law aimed at bringing down the price of school uniform.

Lord Andrew Tyrie has told the Mirror that the Competition and Markets Authority has been asking the government to step in for years.

He says the new law could help keep down costs for "hard pressed families".

A private members bill proposed by Labour's Mike Amesbury, which has secured government backing and is likely to become law, will force ministers to issue guidance to schools on the costs of uniform.

In practice, that could mean ordering schools to stop relying on single suppliers of branded gear – a practice Mr Amesbury branded a "monopoly".

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Tough-talking former Tory MP Lord Tyrie backed the change, saying: "For many parents, there is only one place they can go to buy their child’s school uniform – because the school has made a deal with a single manufacturer or supplier. 

"These deals mean that parents have less choice, and may well face higher prices or poorer quality products as a result.

"That’s not good enough. It’s the job of the Competition and Markets Authority to make sure that people in the UK enjoy the benefits of competition and choice. And on this the CMA has been working hard for several years to make sure that hard-pressed families aren’t worse off.

His remarks come after the new law passed its first hurdle in the Commons.

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Mike Amesbury's Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill passed its second reading unopposed, will now undergo detailed scrutiny in Parliament – and could take effect by the new school year.

Lord Tyrie agreed that the law was necessary as years of "guidance" has not been enough to stop parents being ripped off.

He said: "Every year we hear complaints from parents about not being able to choose where they can buy school uniforms. This suggests that the voluntary guidance from 2013 doesn’t go far enough. By giving this guidance legal force, parents should have more choice and freedom to shop around and find the best deal for them."

Lord Tyrie set out three steps for schools to help reduce the price of uniforms for struggling parents these include giving businesses the chance to compete so parents can shop around, reducing the number of items of uniform that are bespoke or need to be branded and making it easier for families to hand uniforms down within the family or to other children such as by holding uniform swap shops every term.

He explained: "The larger the number of bespoke items, the more likely that schools will resort to exclusive agreements which harm competition and raise prices. Parents should not have to pick up the tab for this. Buying an unusual blazer is likely be more expensive than a navy blue one. But choice and competition can make both more affordable."

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He added: "There is a risk that choice and competition is reduced, and the prices rise, where schools insist on bespoke uniform items. In these cases, we’d like schools to always use more than one supplier to avoid giving one business undue power over pricing.

"Where using a single supplier is unavoidable, schools should put the contract out to competitive tender to get the best deal and not stick with the same supplier for years on end. They can and should run regular competitions to appoint the best value provider.

"This helps families get better value for money. But branded clothing items often cost more money, so we want schools to think deeply about the hit to parents’ pockets before insisting on these."

In parliament Mr Amesbury highlighted a damning Children's Society report which put average uniform costs at £340 a year for secondary schools and £255 for primaries.

Tory MPs hotly disputed the figures, saying the Schoolwear Association had put the cost of compulsory items at just £101 per pupil. One firm told the Mirror costs could be even lower – as it supplies a set including cardigan, jumper and trousers for under £50.

The Department for Education's own research in 2015 put "average total expenditure" on uniform each year at £213.

The regulator's chair said that opting for cheaper uniforms would not necessarily affect quality and it was more important to give parents the power to choose.

 "Just because something is cheaper, it doesn’t always mean it will be lower quality," he said. "But taking away the ability for parents to choose whether to buy a £5 pair of trousers or a £25 pair isn’t reasonable.

"Kids grow and clothes get torn, it’s part of being a parent, but parents should be able to decide what they buy and from where, and they shouldn’t have to pay through the nose."

And he insisted that there was still a place for independent school clothing shops.

"The knowledge and experience of specialist suppliers will always be valued.  What we expect is healthy competition between all shops," Lord Tyrie said. "That can give consumers real choice. Specialist and smaller suppliers need to be able to compete by emphasising their service, quality and price."

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said he was "pleased" to back the new law adding: "In future, when it's back to school time, families [will be] finanically reassured, not burdened.

"It is a subject that crosses party lines and which will positively improve the lives of families across this country."

Labour shadow education secretary Angela Rayner added: "Parents have reported that they've had to cut back on essentials like food to cover the cost for their (children's) school uniform.

"Children have been sent home and denied their education, but this Bill is going to change that."

Mr Gibb highlighted how many schools have made efforts to support vulnerable families with costs, noting this included second-hand uniform schemes – including an exchange system in Barnsley.

Mr Gibb went on: "I would like to see every school finding a way to make second-hand uniforms available.

"My younger brother … had the advantage of wearing my hand-me-downs on occasion and it didn't do him any harm."

Sam Tarry, Labour MP for Ilford South, backed more affordable school sports kit and told MPs he recalled "my Mum saying to me we couldn't have the Dunlop Green Flash.

"We'd have to go and get the £3 bargain plimsolls out of the box, and the thought of dread of going to school the next morning and the embarrassment of PE in those crummy plimsolls".

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